Wade on Birmingham

The Future of Birmingham: A media wasteland

By
Birmingham News

Photo: Ralph Daily (CC)

Local media outlets have seen big changes in their news
operations. But not all the changes have been for the better
for the audience.

Get the full version of this essay in our free ebook.
Details at the end.

Close to a year ago, I gave a talk at a conference here in town about the state of the media. It’s one of the most depressing presentations I’ve ever given.

The Future of BirminghamThe talk has become badly out of date: The news has gotten much worse.

Birmingham, once a small haven for media, is a smoking crater. With each passing year, the crater grows a little wider, a little deeper.

That’s not to slight some of the fine folks left to hold down the fort. The decisions that got us to this ruination were made largely out of state, without regard to subscribers, advertisers, journalists or citizens.

I find that painful to accept as a media consumer, producer, observer and fan.

Local media outlets, whether broadcast, print or Web, have embraced a common playbook: Get eyeballs any way possible. No headline too outrageous, no teaser too wild, no rumor too preposterous. Let us click and bait, for tomorrow we die.

The tyranny of the popular dictates coverage, meaning complete annihilation of watchdog reports on government at every level. Tin-pot mayors from Tarrant to Fairfield, rejoice: Absolutely no one is guarding the henhouse, and better than that, no one cares.

I live in Birmingham proper, but even the city hall coverage here is superficial. While I may know what happens in council meetings, I lack the proper context to understand how it affects me, my wallet, my neighborhood and our future.

We’ve been on this path in Birmingham for a decade or so.

Ten years ago today, on Sept. 23, 2005, my newspaper closed for good. The Birmingham Post-Herald’s death provided a preview of the mass layoffs to come for hundreds upon hundreds of reporters, editors, photographers, copy editors, producers, designers and more.

We see a steady stream of new faces as replacements, cheap disposable labor with no ties to the community. We’re told they’re good at generating content and engaging the audience.

What have we lost in this clumsy transition to all-out digital one-upmanship? That’s the most difficult category to measure, the absence of reportage.

We are completely on our own. And it’s only going to get worse.

I couldn’t do any better. Invest a million dollars into a fantasy news operation I lead, and it would either barely break even or steadily bleed money, even with talented reporters on the cheap. It would gain a small but loyal audience with above-average income, featuring stories that win accolades and awards.

And sooner rather than later, it would fold.

The future of Birmingham is year-round coverage of Alabama and Auburn football, with breaks for viral memes and copy-paste media releases. It’s more airtime for newscasts with lucrative commercials. It’s Sunday-only print editions with 6-day-old news.

It’s the manufacture of outrage and delight to provide dwindling profits for outsider owners, at the expense of an informed citizenry and service as fearless guardians against corrupt government and business.

No one is coming to save us — not newspaper publishers, not partisan bloggers, not seasoned journalists, not Facebook gossipmongers — from our crater of ignorance.

• • •

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Read more essays in our special 10th anniversary series, The Future of Birmingham.

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  1. Wade on Birmingham » #sundayread for Sept. 27, 2015
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